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I am a Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta. My students and I use molecular genetics to study ecology and evolution of wildlife species.

Wednesday 30 November 2016

The sex lives of polar bears revealed!

Recent PhD graduate Rene Malenfant recently published a paper titled "Evidence of adoption, monozygotic twinning, and low inbreeding rates in a large genetic pedigree of polar bears" in the journal Polar Biology which documents some interesting findings about reproduction in the polar bears of the Western Hudson Bay:

  • they very rarely produce monozygotic twins
  • females rarely adopt unrelated cubs - and when they do, it's probably by accident
  • there is very little close inbreeding 

The abstract is pasted below:

Multigenerational pedigrees have been developed for free-ranging populations of many species, are frequently used to describe mating systems, and are used in studies of quantitative genetics. Here, we document the development of a 4449-individual pedigree for the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation of polar bears (Ursus maritimus), created from relationships inferred from field and genetic data collected over six generations of bears sampled between 1966 and 2011. Microsatellite genotypes for 22-25 loci were obtained for 2945 individuals, and parentage analysis was performed using the program FRANz, including additional offspring-dam associations known only from capture data. Parentage assignments for a subset of 859 individuals were confirmed using an independent medium-density set of single nucleotide polymorphisms. To account for unsampled males in our population, we performed half-sib-full-sib analysis to reconstruct males using the program COLONY, resulting in a final pedigree containing 2957 assigned maternities and 1861 assigned paternities with only one observed case of inbreeding between close relatives. During genotyping, we identified two independently captured 2-year-old males with identical genotypes at all 25 loci, showing-for the first time-a case of monozygotic twinning among polar bears. In addition, we documented six new cases of cub adoption, which we attribute to cub misidentification or misdirected maternal care by a female bereaved of her young. Importantly, none of these adoptions could be attributed to reduced female vigilance caused by immobilization to facilitate scientific handling, as has previously been suggested.

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